The Salar Uyuni is impressively the world’s largest salt flat and there is no doubt that this dried prehistoric lake and it’s smaller yet just as impressive neighbour, the Salar de Coipasa are a true wonders of the world. They make up quite a percentage of the country of Bolivia and as a cycle tourist in Latin America you just know you will end up riding these at some point, even those cyclists who stick firmly to the coast and tarmac roads find themselves detouring up on the Bolivian altiplano to experience this wonder.
Miles and miles of nothing but flat white salt would call for some company, and so back in June before Nathan and I even knew we would be spending months cycling together we agreed to meet up at this point to cycle the salt, and of course you would need another person to take those perspective shots. Then I made plans with my friend Charmian to come out and ride with me, so it seemed certain that we would me a merry band of cyclists on the white stuff, under the powerful sun of the altiplano. However, best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and due to Charmian’s fall I found myself solo. It’s fair to say that these few days were not about riding, but about the place I was in. It was not engaging riding and I was just so very thankful that I had recently received a package from home with 2 ipods, each loaded with music of my two brothers choosing, I was then transported into day dreams listening post rock recalling life events in acute detail. These contemplative feelings were also due to turning 30 on the Salar Uyuni. Here is my account.
1st October – Sabaya to Tres Cruces
Today is actually today! Was my feeling on heading out of Sabaya, I was finally out on the iconic ride of the Bolivian salars. I headed out of Sabaya and cycled a few km on the main road as if heading to the border, before taking an unpaved road following a sign to the Salar de Coipasa. I followed the road for a while but there was too much washboard so I soon turned off and just followed some tracks into the horizon.
The sandy soft dirt soon turned to spongy but ridable muddy salt….
… and before too long I arrived in the salt, proper big crystals of the stuff.
At the outskirts of the salar it was easier to notice the imperfections in the salt, small holes with water deposits underneath.
The salt looks like thick sheets, but it is still possible to ride through, giving an initially satisfying feeling.
The clouds on the horizon are just perfect like wallpaper.
After a few kilometres the salt becomes more compacted, easier to ride and vast and I make my way towards the volcano ahead where the village of Coipasa is nestled.
The pattens of the salt and sky thrill me.
I have an urge to take photos of myself riding these surreal surrounds. There is a phenomenon amongst the cycle touring community to strip off and have your photo taken naked. For the sake of ensuring I am able to return to my career working as a health professional in the NHS I will remain clothed in all of the photos on here.
The village of Coipasa is nestled in the bay of one of the volcanoes on the outskirts of the salar. After just several km of salt I head in to the village to help orientate myself. This place makes me quite sad, the outskirts are strewn with rubbish and I witness a few people defecating in public, with no other place to go. The villages in this part of Bolivia are places I really would never want to live.
I had planned on being here with Nathan and Charmian who both have GPS and Nathan had the map, so I was using the detailed photograph instructions of Andy Peat’s wonderful crazyguy journal to help navigate the vastness, oh and my compass on my mobile phone. Head to the mid point between the two volcanoes he says.
I am surprised to find a lake in the middle of the salar. I am treated to close up views of these amazing creatures.
It is necessary to break up the monotonous riding with some more selfie photo shoots.
There are sections of the salar where lines of crusty salt creature otherworldly patterns and shapes.
At other sections the salar is just pure sheets of twinkling blankness, with the sun shining bright.
Then there was this section of whiter spots.
Thank you Andy Peat for your instructions, I just kept heading for the middle of these two.
There was a storm coming in behind me, I took this photograph when it still looked pretty unthreatening but it became almost purple in it’s heaviness which really encouraged me to hit shore that night and abandon plans to camp on the salt.
This famous hexagonal forms become prevalent as I get closer to shore.
Around 10km from land I encounter these two ?vicuña corpses. These animals are a protected species and it seems so strange that they have been skinned in this way as I know any Andean country person would use an animal like this in it’s entirety. I wonder if anyone can shed any light on this?
I am allured by the flickering light that is the village of Tres Cruces and concerned about the storm that is catching me up, I think I take a slightly wrong direction and have to push my bike through these soft energy sapping sheets of salt at the edge of the salar. Following another cyclist’s tracks lets me know I am not the only one to make the error.
Like curled up wet sheets of paper they are more interesting to look at than cycle on.
I make it to the village of Tres Cruces, a sand storm has whipped up just behind me and the villagers seem to have boarded up. I stop outside a house to put on more layers when Willy opens his door. He is a village teacher and lets me sleep on the schools dining room floor, I have electricity and peace and I am happy. No toilet though and I am instructed to just out into the open expanse like the rest of the village.
2nd October – Tres Cruces to Llica
I somehow refer to this section of sandy scrub land between the two salars as the ‘inter salar highway’ but in reality it is little more than some tracks which at times are ridable and at times require a lot of upper body strength to push through the sand and washboarding. It takes half a day, barely stopping and I see one vehicle and some bemused looking campesinos trying to farm on this dry earth.
This was one of the ridable sections.
Again, a storm is coming in and I make it to Llica in perfect timing.
I now have half a day in Llica to spare as I do not wish to head straight out onto the salt. There are fruit and vegetables in the shops which is quite a rarity in Bolivia so I make some fresh food, use the internet and watch a film. The village is full of signs telling people to look after pachamama (mother earth) and not to drop litter, the signs appear in both Aymara and Castillano (Spanish).
3rd October – Llica to Isla de Incahuasi (Salar Uyuni)
Happy Birthday to me! I faff around in the internet place in Llica trying to read birthday messages on it’s incredibly slow internet, I give up and head to the salt. Before too long I stop for a photo shot which takes about an hour. I am determined to make it look as though I am a tiny person biting into this juicy pear. I give up and do this instead, I wish there were people with me!
Time for a birthday self portrait.
Thank you Husky Organic for the t-shirt. The organic cotton is so soft and the fit is great, I’ve been wearing it on and off the bike.
The hexagonal patterns are so stark on the Salar Uyuni. Just me, the hexagons and not much more.
Although my fun soon stops as a thunder storm is coming in behind me, I pedal pedal pedal. When I started this bike tour I had fears about things like rape, mugging and car crashes, now my main fears are dogs, thunderstorms and horses (they can kick you from behind).
Due to my thunderstorm phobia I ride to the only visible land mass of Isla del Pescado, which is more west than I wish to be. I have escaped the storm and use my trusty compass to head east where I find Isla Incahuasi (pictured). I am relieved to make it to shore.
I fancy a night on the salt but I am more than happy to nestle amongst the cactus on the island. This is an incredibly touristy place with all of the jeep tours stopping here but there is only one jeep remaining when I arrive and they soon leave. Apart from the islands residents a sweet old couple who sell me beer and gift me chocolate it’s just me and some French campervanners, the French invite me in for dinner and sing me happy birthday. The night was not cold at all as others ahead of me said it had been, I slept with my sleeping bag undone.
Sunset on the salar.
4th October – Isla Incahuasi to Uyuni
I wake up before 6am to the sound of English speakers, the jeeps have already arrived on the island and the flags are up which signals my time to leave.
I thank the lovely French couple, I really enjoyed their company.
That morning there is nothing to do but ride on one of the well defined tracks heading towards land. I am told that the Bolivian President Evo is going to the island that day to promote tourism, each vehicle that passes I wonder if it’s him. I want to meet this guy.
Isla Incahuasi behind me. This is a day for music and day dreams.
I keep riding, I don’t even want to break my rhythm for lunch.
As I get closer to land there are masses of military lining the track waiting for the president. I reach the village of Colchani and then have to negotiate the road works for 20km to the town of Uyuni. That evening I celebrate my birthday with pizza and wine.
Salar play lists: